I recently visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia which houses one of the finest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the world. As I wandered through the corridors of Renoirs and Matisses, I felt my heart expand, as it often does in the presence of such abundant beauty. I was particularly captivated by the portraits the artists had made of friends and patrons. These were not conventionally beautiful portraits. They were completely unlike the glamour shots and selfies prised in today’s culture. Rather, they sought to convey something of the beauty of the souls of their subjects.
As I was pondering this transubstantiation of soul to canvas, I noticed that the museum was filled, not just with beautiful paintings, but with something even more extraordinary, but which I had never noticed before. The museum was filled with people! Real people, as beautiful as the people in the paintings. They milled about, taking snapshots with their phones, resting wearily on couches, or looking around for something they might know, a Monet or Van Gough, some perplexed, some bored, some enraptured. And for a moment, I felt as if I had been transformed into an artist myself, seeing all this beauty in the strangers around me, beauty that cried out to be noticed and immortalised, if only I had the genius express it.
We go to museums to see beautiful paintings. But the paintings are not half as beautiful as the people who come to stare at them, the ordinary folks we ignore, avoid, judge, or resent. Dorothea Lang once said that the purpose of a photograph is to teach us how to look at the world. That day at the Barnes Foundation I suddenly understood what she meant. It’s not that a photograph teaches us to look at the world as if through the lens of a camera, with a discriminating eye. Rather, a great photograph or painting teaches us to look at the world with the eyes of an artist. Not merely to appreciate, but to see, feel and understand people and things as they truly are. And all people are beautiful. That is the truth that gleams beneath the encrusted layers of culture and prejudice that disguises and distorts the world around us.
Glamour vs Beauty
I’ve always been intoxicated by the glamour of Hollywood, the sexy, airbrushed perfection of glossy magazines. Then I ran across the work of photographer Andy Gotts who specialises in celebrity portraiture. I was astounded at how beautiful these stars could be even under a harsh, penetrating light, with wrinkles highlighted rather than photoshopped away. His photos reveal both strengths and vulnerabilities, perfections, flaws, and quirks. It reminded me of a favourite quote from Joseph Campbell: “Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love – and I mean love, not lust – is the imperfection of the human being. “
The Beauty of Strangers
In an interview with Krista Tippet on the On Being Podcast, Evangelical writer Richard Muow spoke of the importance of noticing the beauty of people who are different than ourselves.
In affirming the stranger, we are honouring the image of God. Every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is a work of art. Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person.
Richard Muow is a conservative evangelical, opposed to SSM and everything you would expect from someone of his political persuasion. Yet he is an extraordinarily loving person, even towards gays and liberals. When he sees people he doesn’t agree with, he doesn’t necessarily feel the need to find common ground with them. Rather, he sees their differences as an exercise in “art appreciation.” Common ground is overrated. So is agreement and understanding. People are different and there is beauty in difference itself. It is in our appreciation for strangeness that we can come together in love.
The Beauty of Strangeness
In another On Being podcast, a guest spoke of the supremely beautiful thoraxes of the bugs we loathe: cockroaches, ants, spiders, each one an extraordinary work of engineering beyond anything mankind has ever come close to designing. The body of an ant is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” infinitely more magnificent than the sun in the sky. For what is the sun except a simple ball of burning hydrogen? But a tiny bug, easily squashed under foot, reminds us that the universe doesn’t just expand outwardly into unimaginable distances, it also expands inwardly, in unfathomable complexity. William Blake’s poem The Book of Thel touches on this theme. In the poem, a beautiful young girl encounters a poor, neglected worm, who speaks these words to her:
“Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed;
My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,
But He that loves the lowly, pours His oil upon my head,
And kisses me, and binds His nuptial bands around my breast,
And says: ‘Thou mother of My children, I have loved thee
And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.’”
The daughter of beauty wip’d her pitying tears with her white veil,
And said: “Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.
That God would love a Worm, I knew, and punish the evil foot
That, wilful, bruis’d its helpless form; but that He cherish’d it
With milk and oil I never knew…
- Have you had moments of human “art appreciation?”
- Do you find beauty in the strangeness and differentness in other people, apart from whether or not you can understand them or find any common ground?
- Do you think bugs are beautiful?
 I love how this poem unwittingly touches on the beauty of evolution, for the worm is our literal ancestor, the mother of all God’s children.
I have had many moments to wish for enough appreciation of art to really be educated on it, but never follow through. I’m intrigued, but not much more. Seeing my daughter have natural skill to draw things I never could makes me appreciate it more.
I do, however, regularly admire others and the differences. People watching in public places fascinates me. Hearing stories and testimonials in church is even more fascinating. Realistically, while “equal ground” would be ideal, I do see some who are trouble, or exhibit bad choices and behaviors, and are not all equal. Some are dangerous. But I value variety and diversity. Perhaps growing up in New Jersey did that to me.
Bugs are all equally ugly. Puppies and kittens are adorable, equally.
When I walked into St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City , I laterally had my breath taken away at the beauty and grander of the place. I have never had that happen before or after, and I’ve been in lots of museums, churches and temples.
Beautiful post. Beautifully written. Thanks.
Great post. I don’t have much to add except that I haven’t had many moments of human art appreciation, at least not the kind you mean, of appreciating ordinary people. I suppose I’m terribly shallow, but I remember more the times I was overwhelmed with someone else’s physical beauty. I guess the first and most powerful one was the first time I saw Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Simply extraordinary.
But you’re right. The beauty of strangers and of difference and the unconventional is deeply moving and powerful. One of my favorite poems is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” which celebrates, among other things, “All things counter, original, spare, strange”.
That was interesting.
Interesting. I do agree it’s often what could be seen as the flaws that can be beautiful. Your post reminded me of this programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07h6hft) by an art critic on his experience of sitting for artist David Hockney I heard just last week.
I find much inspiration in museums too, and appreciate your thoughts. But what most excites me is that the Barnes now allows patrons to photograph the works with their phones. Last time I was there, even non-flash photos were forbidden, and I was unable to take notes of my visit unless I laboriously wrote it in a notebook with a pencil– because pens were also forbidden. There is some wonderful unpublicized art there, for which I only have fading memories.
Heber13: “Bugs are all equally ugly.”
I had a really hard time choosing a photo of a bug that might actually pass for “beautiful” in this admittedly overly idealistic view. This photo might pass for “cute” because it is slightly more anthropomorphic (chubby like a baby, with tiny eyes, if those are eyes, and little hands like Donald Trump’s.) The other insect photography I found was all of gangly creatures with monstrously big eyes. But there is a certain spiritual state where “ugly” becomes beautiful, because it points to some kind of truth, and truth is beauty as Keats said.
I’m reminded of a story an etymologist told on Radiolab. One of his crickets was trying to escape the jar so he slammed the lid down and accidentally tore into the cricket’s thorax, and the green innards started oozing out. Then the cricket proceeded to eat his own innards.
This etymologist was really troubled by this behaviour, because it seemed SO inhuman, so completely beyond anything that he could possibly empathise with. But later he realised something. Crickets desperately need protein to survive, and whenever they smell protein, they instinctually start to gorge, for they never know when they might get the next chance to eat. This cricket was simply feeding on an unexpected food source that might help him survive in a cruel, desperate world. He had no comprehension that it was his own flesh he was feeding on.
After the etymologist realised this, he felt like he was somehow able to relate to the cricket, that there was a primal connection there which he hadn’t realised. I think finding these primal connections help us see beauty in things vastly different from ourselves.
entomologist = bugs
etymologist = words
This is one of the reasons I encourage people to model for art classes. it gives opportunity to see the beauty that is your body in a different way. Beauty in art can help you see beauty in form.
Since I love to paint, I have often reflected on the idea that painting is like putting a puzzle together, and you develop an appreciation for the subject’s structure as well as things like light, composition, perspective, etc. But mostly I’m interested in seeing how light reveals the structure of a landscape. I stick to landscapes and still life painting, though. Painting the structures of human beings exceeds my talent level. My few experiments with it haven’t been terribly promising. Maybe I need more practice.
I do sometimes like to people-watch at museums, but perhaps not to the extent you described. Next week when we’re in Europe again, I’ll have to pay more attention. I often wonder why others are there, knowing my own reasons. I wonder what made them choose to go, what drew them.
Bugs are beautiful and interesting because their structures are on the outside (exoskeletons). A college roommate of mine did “landscapes” that were all constructed of insect drawings. A grasshopper leg could be a mountain range, a butterfly wing jutting out from behind as a taller peak. It was an interesting series of sketches.
Likewise, I love fashion that reveals the structure of the clothing rather than hiding it under embellishments and flounces; clothing is another art form, and ideally it should complement the structures of the body.
I forgot to mention one thing that I enjoy about looking at people (your Lauren Bacall photos reminded me of this) is that the lines and wrinkles on our faces as we age reveal who we are, our experiences and our personalities. Laugh lines, frown lines, wrinkled brows, all these express the lives we’ve lived. Our experiences alter the structure of the body over time to create a new creature from the one that was born. What we do, think, and feel are reflected in our faces.
Wonderful topic Nate.
I travel a bit and have always been interested in the faces of people at airports that see each other after an extended amount of time. The pure joy of family. The pure passion of lovers. I have often been interested that after seeing someone you love (and in the case of lovers) kissing is not always the first thing they do. To embrace closely – to be with that person and their body – usually is the greeting of choice. But above all the looks in their eyes and faces is priceless. I never tire of seeing that.
In relation to art… My family was on vacation to the states and we spent a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I sat before a Monet called “pathway through the irises” I think. All the noise went. All my peripheral vision went. All the perception of time went. Any sense that was still working was working to allow my mind, body and soul to be with – and enjoy – this beautiful work of art. At that moment there was this painting and me…in all the universe. It was something I have never felt before or since.
On the subject of your bug – I think it is beautiful. The eyes and hair and legs look super cool. I think there is beauty in most things.
I think bugs are fascinating but don’t need to be beautiful. Not everything in life is or can be by me just trying to appreciate it more. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not every eye can be forces to see everything beautiful is some way. Even if I can fall in love with imperfection, all things in opposition, beauty has opposites that make life more beautiful, if not the individual thing (bugs).
Seeing the paintings of Mark Rothko has taught me to look past the surface of things,to see the paint and love the worked surface-the paint affected by time. This has helped me develop a love for surfaces worked on by time- skin,paint, paper.Then I became interested in self-portraits, especially those of Rembrandt who painted himself at several points in his life. Lucien Freud explores the colours in our skin. My life has been enormously enriched as these artists and others have offered me a view of our deep humanity, and the beauty of the aged surface,helping me to accept the beauty of the work of time.